Saturday, July 24, 2010

England is a mad, mad, mad soccer world

I always have heard how England is a soccer mad country and now I know.

They’re just plain mad over here.

My teenage son’s soccer team toured the UK this month and I was along for the ride. We arrived in London the day of the World Cup final and watched the match in a sports bar in the hotel where we were staying. Though our players and their entourage had little, if any, sleep for 24 straight hours, we outlasted the local soccer fans who had gathered in the same space with us.

Perhaps they retired early because they were mad at the English referee, Howard Webb, who flashed more cards in the Spain-Holland finale than a kindergarten teacher during a math lesson.

As much as we hear about “football” over here and they snide about our version of “soccer,” it was revealing to see how our soccer players were so much more into the match than their football fans, though, in fairness, I would imagine an English crowd in a local pub would have been a more representative sampling of fanaticism.

Two days later, our U19 boys soccer team played the first of four friendly matches – the first against a group of 16-to-17-year-olds attending a soccer academy. Their lives consisted of going to school than playing soccer after it. Some of the players arrived for the match in dress shirts and ties.

Basically, they were puzzled as to how an American team would show up to play them.

“Why are you in England?” a young chap asked afterward, “when the girls in California are twice as hot.”

The game’s referee and parents I spoke with were intrigued by “football” in the United States and the American’s run in the World Cup. And they had various opinions about the state of England’s soccer in world play. Most of them disliked the Steinbrenner-like approach the English Premier League teams are taking to sign free agent players from other countries to huge contacts. The theory in England is this practice has stunted the growth of England’s best and brightest young players in a country where clearly football is king, witness the number of billboards in London featuring their football players.

My son’s soccer team played a men’s team in its second friendly. It had two players who were 35 years old and another that was 29. This was the friendliest of the friendly matches as there was no fish and chippie-ness between the Americans and English.

That wasn’t the case in the next friendly. Tottenham is one of the English Premier League teams and each one of them has developmental teams. My son’s team played Tottenham’s 17-18-year-old development team, a predominantly black team. These kids all aspire to play professional soccer. The players on my son’s team all aspire to have a good time.

After battling the talented Tottenham team to a 0-0 tie after the first of three 30-minute halves, Tottenham raised its intensity. One of its players took out one of our best defenders with a hard tackle that drew a yellow card. Another of our top defenders limped off the field with an injury a few minutes later and the game wound up being an 8-0 rout.

The final friendly was against a club team that was age equivalent. But their home “pitch” had natural grass with a roofed grandstand. They were serious about defending their turf and they were out to bag an American. The play was physical and our team was depleted by mounting injuries (my son pulled a hamstring) and it got ugly in the second half of a 4-0 loss but there were no international incidents.

Though many people in England seem to resent America, they all are fascinated by it and would love to visit the USA. And there also seems to be a growing respect for American “soccer” and our players came away with a greater appreciation of English “football.”

We’re just not as mad about it as they are.


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